Rumblings in Expatland: Trailing, Accompanying, Stellar or Other?

There are discernible rumblings in expat land. It’s divisive stuff.

Way back in the spring at the FIGT (Families in Global Transition) Conference in Washington DC, there was a move to redefine the term used to describe the spouse-following-the-spouse-with-the-job. That’s the one usually following several months behind the first with suitcases, children, and the dog – frazzled, frustrated and not taking any prisoners.

Oft times referred to as the ‘trailing spouse’ or the ‘accompanying partner’ these terms don’t encompass the role the supporting spouse (male or female) plays. At the FIGT the acronym STARS was suggested. (Spouses Traveling and Relocating Successfully). Coined, I believe, by Apple Gidley.

This in itself has caused some interesting debate. My friend Linda over at adventuresinexpatland wrote an interesting piece in April entitled Expat Bougainvillea: Tale of the ‘Trailing Spouse after reading an article before that written by Evelyn Simpson at

Evelyn has written further on this subject, ‘Still an Accompanying Partner’ and I respect what she has to say, and was particularly drawn to the comments:

‘Now as you all know, I hate/despise/loathe the term ‘trailing spouse’ for all of the reasons I’ve been ranting on about for the last year or so, but won’t be using STARS either. Why? The nomenclature for what we are doing serves two purposes. The first is that it gives us a way to describe what we are doing to other people and the second is that it gives the HR community a way to refer to  us as a group.’ 

Evelyn got me at HR and I sat up and started to take notice.

‘The first is that it gives us a way to describe what we are doing to other people and the second is that it gives the HR community a way to refer to  us as a group.  STARS/CEO of Team X/Execuwife are great in the first instance as they help to paper over those awkward ‘what do you do’ conversations with a bit of humour and they mean that we can describe ourselves with words that don’t feel demeaning.  Unfortunately, I don’t think any of them help in the more important HR conversation.  I just can’t imagine HR/Relocation professionals referring to expats and their STARS.’

It was ‘HR’ and ‘important conversation’ used in the same sentence that really hooked me in.

I’ve never given much thought to HR accept as those faceless, nameless wonders with the clipboards who make decisions about our lives without having a clue who we are, never mind how we live.

On our last move they failed to insure the contents of our home whilst in transit, saying they didn’t think we were bringing anything with us. The fact they’d booked a 40-foot container and had been emailing the removal company daily would have been a clue to most people. We never did recover the full cost of the damage.

As the trailing/ accompanying spouse/ partner I’ve never had an important conversation with HR. Ever. I’ve had dictates, instructions, reams of paperwork but a sane two-way conversation? Never.

How HR refer to me I have no idea. It has honestly never occurred to me they might have a need to describe or pigeonhole me as the Captain’s sidekick. It’s not me who works for the company after all. Up until recently I was referred to as ‘that bloody woman’ but whether that’s still the case I’m not entirely sure.

Nor have I any desire to be a trailing anything. I love wisteria as a flower but these days it brings to mind The Wisteria Sisters (as The Duchess of Cambridge and her sister were refered to by the UK tabloid press) but I digress.

Clinging wisteria I am not. Nor do I particularly like the term accompanying spouse, STARS appeals if only to get under the skin of the HR department but – and I have to be absolutely honest here – I really don’t give a rats bottom how anyone wants to define me.

I have never been in a social situation where ‘trailing/ accompanying spouse/ partner’ would have been an appropriate response to any question. I’ve been asked what I do but ‘I’m a trailing spouse’ is not the answer. (In such situations I have been known to make something up just to enliven the proceedings, but there’s only so many times you can get away with claiming you’ve been assigned from NASA to train astronauts at the European Space Centre.)

If I had to close my eyes and picture who I am, then the image I always see is the searing desert, dry, hot wind blowing from the Sahara and me organising the taking down of the tents and loading up a caravan of camels. The next scenario is riding at the front of that caravan, robes billowing behind and setting off towards the sun-baked dunes on the distant horizon…  and Johnny Depp waiting at the next oasis.

Forget trailing/ accompanying spouse/ partner, in my mind’s eye I’m just a glorified nomadic camel-herder setting off on the next adventure. It works for me.



About wordgeyser

Our anglo/american family used to live in four countries (USA, Canada, UK and the Netherlands) on two continents, separated by distance, time zones, circumstance and cultures. It has been a scary, enriching, challenging place to be. The only things guaranteed to get us through were a sense of humour and the amazing people met along the way. . . This year everything changed with a move for us from the Netherlands, – and a move along with us for our son and his wife from the UK – to Houston, Texas, the same city as our daughter. With our youngest in Vancouver, Canada, we are now all living on the same continent. How this happened, and more importantly why, will be the subject of this ongoing blog...
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9 Responses to Rumblings in Expatland: Trailing, Accompanying, Stellar or Other?

  1. I love your passion, Jo, and know that STARS is offered as a far more positive alternative to ‘trailing spouse’. That’s the beauty of choice. To each, his (yes, there are greater numbers of men now in the equation) or her own. In the end, the words only matter if they are revealing your true feelings.

  2. Jo Parfitt says:

    As someone who was actually ‘in the room’ when Apple’s new phrase was first coined, I am wholeheartedly behind the STARS acronym. This is because I believe many people find it damned hard to lose their identity as the move from posting to posting. Over time, like the state of their moving boxes, they get increasingly battered and bruised and find the term ‘trailing spouse’ demeaning. It saps what power and control they may feel they have left. Now, I am no soapbox speaker, and am actually perfectly happy to ‘trail’. I love the opportunities this has afforded me and the wonderful career it has allowed me to evolve. However, I stand firm, fist in air at the thought that, as a STAR, I have a positive label at last. No, I am sure HR will never adopt the term. I expect we are all ‘bloody women’ to them and they would rather we were kept silent and Stepford wife like.

    Love the desert image though, Jane, and if I get Johnny Depp at the end of the journey I will suffer the sunburn!

    • wordgeyser says:

      Thanks for your comment Jo, I think this is a hugely important topic for all of us, and glad it’s caused such good debate!
      Couldn’t decide Johnny Depp or George Clooney but I think, on balance, Johnny would look better in Bedouin robes. I might have to spend some time thinking about it . . .

  3. On my real life facebook page I describe myself as CEO and Domestic Goddess of (my real last name) Inc.

    I actually don’t mind the term trailing spouse. It reflects something that’s true. We have left our careers behind to follow the jobs of our husbands/wives. I get how for some people this title seems inadequate, but for me it seems ok.

    Like you, I don’t really care what HR calls me.

  4. thesmartexpat says:

    Great post and no I don’t mind you quoting me at all! I’ve called myself all kinds of things on forms in the past to avoid the dreaded “Huisvrouw” etc. but I can say that I truly regret that none of them have been as creative as “training astronauts at the European Space Centre” or “glorified nomadic camel herder”.

    I agree with you when you say that how the HR community labels me doesn’t affect the way I see myself but its important to me that I’m seen as an actual person whose life is affected by an international relocation; that instead of seeing me a spoiled brat who is getting a three year holiday from work, there is some recognition that by giving up a career to move overseas means that I have lost income and identity. In the world of global talent management, we spouses and partners are a big part of what makes expat assignments work (has your husband ever taken time off from a new job to wait around all day for the telephone company to connect your house?) and it would be fantastic to get a little bit of respect and support in those endeavours instead of being labelled as an appendage.

    The reality is that for most expats and particularly those who have made multiple moves, the HR process affects us and it affects our children. A greater awareness of the whole family and a greater sense of partnership would go a long way to making more expat assignments successful (a win-win if there ever was one). Using a label that is at a minimum neutral would be a great start.

    Happy camel herding and writing! I’m glad to have found your blog!


    P.S. Check out my Definitely Not Trailing groups on Facebook and LinkedIn

    • wordgeyser says:

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting Evelyn – and appreciate you understanding this is tongue-in-cheek!

      The whole issue is a sensitive one for all of us and I’m not sure how we will resolve it. Finding a label/title that recognises the essential role the supporting spouse/partner plays is going to take some doing, but I have every faith it will be achieved eventually.

      I think it says a lot about the nature of supporting spouses (men and women) that the job gets done whether we have a label or not – who else would work so tirelessly without a job title, respect or a company credit card?? As Jane commented, we do it for our partners and our families; we do what has to be done. At least we keep the HR departments of the world on their toes, not bad for appendages who aren’t even on the payroll!

  5. Wait, does this mean you DON’T train astronauts at the European Space Station?!?

    Seriously, an excellent post. You’ve struck a chord, and the discussion is the better for it. Who we (individually and collectively) are is not what HR or anyone else labels us as. I’ll gladly accept ‘glorified nomadic camel herder’ if it means Johnny Depp is waiting at the oasis 😉

  6. Jane says:

    I love and admire your imagery… the closest I have got involves me as a sheep dog, rounding up and nipping at the reluctant flock, holding them all together, while navigating them out of the paddock, across a river and over a mountain range, before descending down into the valley, through a narrow gate (guarded by realtor gatekeeper) into the meadow that will be the new home. But here my kiwi roots are showing 😉

    I hadn’t heard of STARS… but I think it is simplistic and patronizing. For a starter it assumes that the STAR is both happy with the choice (“Travelling” implies a certain free will) and successful in this role (“Successfully”). This then sends the worrying message to HR that this role is both easy and satisfying. Yeah right.

    As for Execuwife and CEO of Team X… please. These titles imply that we are doing it for The Company, when we all know we are doing it for our spouses, our families, and yes, for ourselves. I’ll only accept a silly corporate title with the accompanying salary and business card.

    I have used “trailing spouse” … guess I need to read Evelyn’s blog now!

    • wordgeyser says:

      Glad to see this has touched – if not a nerve- then definitely a chord! Love what you had to say about the execuwife – and totally agree about corporate titles. They can call us what they want; it bears no relation to who we are, what we do or why we do it.

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